For the fourth straight year, Temple University’s Fox School of Business topped U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of the best online MBA programs. At a total cost of $59,760, Temple’s program is priced near the bottom of the top ten schools and well below the highest pricetag of $128,000 for Carnegie Mellon’s online MBA degree.
At the top of the ranking, it was a familiar cast of online MBA characters. Only one new school cracked the top ten list this year, with the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business rising four places to finish eighth from 12th. Falling out of the top ten, though just barely, were the online MBA offerings at Auburn University, now 11th from 10th, and Arkansas State University, now 12th, from 10th a year ago.
Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business repeated its second-place finish, with Indiana University’s Kelley School gaining one spot to earn a second place tie with Tepper. Rounding out the top five were No. 4 University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flager Business School and No. 5 Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business.
WEAKING ADMISSION STANDARDS AT TWO TOP TEN SCHOOLS WITH HIGHEST GROWTH
More surprising than the actual rankings at the top at least are some revealing trends. Among the top ten schools, several players have shown massive year-over-year increases in enrollment in their online MBA programs. The University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business boosted enrollment by 151% to 369 students from only 147 a year ago. The University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School reported a 78% jump in enrollment to 1,862 students from 1,047 a year earlier.
That hyper-growth—largest among the top ten—has come at a cost, however. Only 16% of the incoming students in Maryland’s online program submitted a GMAT or GRE score. At Kenan-Flagler, only 15% of the incoming students provided GMAT or GRE scores. They are the only two online MBA programs in the top ten in which fewer than half the incoming students have standardized test scores. Not surprisingly, both schools reported higher acceptance rates in the past year as well, with Maryland at 74%, up from 68%, and UNC at 55%, up from 45%.
Contrast those numbers with No. 1 Temple. Leveraging its top rankings from U.S. News, Temple was able to increase its online MBA enrollment by an impressive 57% to 546 students from 351. Yet, 100% of the incoming class provided either a GMAT score or a GRE. Temple’s acceptance rate, meantime, remained vrtually stable at 46% this past year versus 45% a year earlier. The upshot: U.S. News ranked Temple’s admissions selectivity first among all the schools. At UNC, the selectivity rank was 13th, despite the school’s overall rank of fourth; and at Maryland, the selectivity rank was 32th, even though the school’s online MBA program placed ninth overall.
Still, the UNC at Chapel Hill brand is allowing the school to put the second highest price tag on its online program. MBA@UNC now costs nearly $115,000, only behind Carnegie Mellon’s $128,000, the only two online MBA offerings at six figures. Higher-priced online offerings generally put more emphasis on in-person learning, but the steeper prices are also more likely to put graduates into debt. UNC told U.S. News that 35% of the graduates of its online MBA program now rack up average student debt of $72,225. At Carnegie Mellon, it’s even higher: 44% of students graduate with average debt of $90,445. This compares to No. 1 Temple where 40% of the school’s 2016-2017 grads reported average debt of just $16,275.
BIG WINNERS AND BIG LOSERS
As usual, there were some dramatic roller-coaster ups and downs in the ranking, even among the top 50 schools. Florida Atlantic University’s online MBA program jumped 58 places this year to rank 42nd from 100th a year ago. The University of Delaware’s online offering climbed a remarkable 43 places to finish in the top 25 at a rank of 22nd, up from 65th in 2017. Colorado State’s online MBA placed 42nd this year after being unranked a year earlier.
A trio of schools in the top 50 plunged by double-digits. The University of Wisconsin at Whitewater and South Florida University saw their online MBAs lose a dozen spots each to rank 27th and 30th, respectively, from 16th and 18th last year. Georgia Southern University’s online MBA dropped 11 positions to finish 47th, from 36th in 2017.
More astounding than the dramatic swings for some schools is the proliferation of online MBA programs in the U.S. In the early days of the online revolution, the general thinking was that most students would go for brand. They would no longer have to settle for their local or regional university. Because they could study for their degree at home, at work or on the road, they could get an education from a more prestigious nationally renown university. Yet, research shows that most online students choose a school within a 50-mile radius of their homes. This year, U.S. News placed numerical ranks on 267 online MBA programs in the U.S., up from 180 ranked in 2017. And yet even those numbers don’t include all the online MBA options currently in what has become a crowded and commoditized marketplace. In fact, 20% of the top 50 schools report online MBA enrollments of under 100 students.
HOW U.S. NEWS RANKS ONLINE MBA PROGRAMS
This is the sixth time U.S. News has ranked online MBAs, having debuted its ranking in 2013. The ranking is based on an overly complicated formula that centers on nearly 50 different metrics in five measured categories: Student engagement (28% of the weight), admissions selectivity (25%), peer reputation (25%), faculty credentials and training (11%), and student services and technology (11%). In each category, several metrics are taken into account. In admissions selectivity, for example, assigns a 40% weight to average GMAT and GRE scores of incoming students, 20% on the class’ average undergraduate grade point average, 20% on the acceptance rate, and finally 20% on what U.S. News calls “experience.” If fewer than 75% of the latest incoming class is admitted without a GMAT or GRE score, U.S. News will penalize the school.
That latter ‘experience’ metric is based on three equally weighted parts: The extent to which work experience and undergraduate business coursework is required; whether applicants are required to submit three letters of recommendation, including one from a professional contact; and the percentage of new entrants sponsored by an employer. In effect, U.S. News arbitrarily penalizes schools that require only two recommendation letters or schools whose students are not sponsored.
One obvious disadvantage of the U.S. News list is that it is entirely U.S.-centric. The only other major ranking of online MBA programs, published by the Financial Times, is a global ranking but it only rates 20 schools so it has limited value. The latest FT list puts Spain’s IE Business School first, with U.K.’s Warwick Business School second, and the University of Massachusetts in Amherst third. In contrast, UMass is ranked 16th by U.S. News. The only schools making the top ten in both U.S. News and the FT rankings are Indiana’s KelleyDirect program, ranked seventh by the FT, and the University of Florida, placing fifth in the Financial Times.
(See following page for rankings tables)